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Antonia Baehr’s My Dog is my Piano and Abecedarium Bestiarium: Theatre of the Bestiary, Bestiaries of Theatre

Esther Köhring


Cet article s’intéresse à la relation historique et systémique entre théâtre et bestiaire, et propose une approche méthodologique pour penser (avec) les animaux sur scène. En empruntant des éléments à la théorie du bestiaire (le bestiaire comme figuration de la théorie), ainsi qu’à l’histoire culturelle du bestiaire (le bestiaire comme forme culturelle) il analyse l’œuvre de la chorégraphe et performeuse allemande contemporaine Antonia Baehr. ses dernières performances en solo sont largement tributaires des débats actuels sur la relation entre humains et animaux et interrogent la façon dont le théâtre pense et met en scène les animaux.

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1The following argument unfolds in three parts: Firstly, the concept of “stages of knowledge” and the performative structure and dynamics of alphabestiaries are introduced. The paper proposes to convert bestiaries, understood as self-aware stages of knowledge, into methodological tools for thinking about and with stage- and theatre-animals, and therefore prevent some of the shortcomings of contemporary theatre theory when it comes to the question of animals. This suggestion is developed and substantialised in the following two parts. In these, the bestiary as a figure of thought is investigated by looking at Baehr’s performance My dog is my piano and Derrida’s concept of the animot; and then the cultural history of the bestiary is problematised. In the third part, Baehr’s Abecedarium Bestiarium is presented as not ignoring the “troubled stakes” (Derrida) of the bestiary, but as overdetermining and appropriating them, performatively envisioning a theatre of the bestiary.

1. “A stands for animals all ought to know”: Animals on stages of knowledge

  • 1 For the concept of “scenes of knowledge”/“stages of knowledge” as a description for the interplay o (...)
  • 2 The concept of “Kulturtechniken”/“cultural techniques” is used to describe “basic operations and di (...)
  • 3 “Matrix” here refers to Kirby 1972, and describes the ability of the theatre system to frame presen (...)
  • 4 “Fabrication” means, according to Latour’s Actor-Network-Theory, the simultaneous production of kno (...)
  • 5 Circulating reference means the chain of transformation in the process of fabrication. The term sub (...)

2Theatre stages are the architectural medial condition of possibility for performative production and experience, and they are stages of knowledge1 for the cultural techniques2 of “performing” and “staging”. As such, they are a medium that frames and matrixes3; places of both embodiment and metaphorization; knots in a network of fabrication of knowledge4, that is of the simultaneous production of knowledge and a network of actors. Stages of knowledge can be found outside of theatres, e.g. in laboratories, in zoos, in theoretical texts. They are connected in a joint production of knowledge by translating and transposing each other, until the produced knowledge is legitimised, stabilised, made possible as a result of circulating references.5

3For example, the stages of knowledge of zoology, literacy, the zoo and theatre are connected, materialising each other’s metaphors, each serving as a model for the other, providing each other with cultural techniques. The knowledge about animals that is performatively produced on these stages, is therefore also knowledge about zoology, literacy, the zoo and theatre.

  • 6 Calarco 2008 coined the term “question of the animal”. The term is pluralised here 1) to acknowledg (...)

4This concept can be illustrated by the first two lines of the alphabestiary The ABC of Animals (around 1880): “[A] stands for [animals] all ought to know; [B] is a brown [bear], the first in the show.” (McLoughlin Bros. 1880) The lines are medial combinations of letter, language, image and referenced cultural practices, combining several stages of knowledge (about animals): zoology, the zoo, the animal show. The concept “animal” binds together the practices of knowing and seeing, of naming and showing, but, more importantly, these practices bind together the “questions of the animal”.6 By the interplay of stages, animals and knowledge, questions of power, violence, education, entertainment, epistemology and ethics are raised. They result in a seemingly well sorted and named world, but the ABC of Animals is built on a paradox: It teaches the ABC, language and, as a side-effect, ensures anthropological difference – but it teaches this with animals, by means of animals. Moreover, by referencing cultural practices, like the zoo and the animal show, this alphabestiary reflects on its own role as a tool of cultural techniques and cultural practices – reading, knowing and mastering not only letters, but animals. This awareness of mediality and actions links the question of the animal with the question of its stages (here, with the theory of theatre/performance and language/literature).

5For example, with “A stands for animals all ought to know, B is a Brown Bear, the first in the show”, the ABC of Animals is both staging and performing the shifts that are at play in the substitution processes and translations/transpositions between animal, representation, picture, word/name and letter, between writing, sign and speaking. A stands for animals, B is a bear. But what does this “stands for” mean, what does this “is a” do? Is this “B stands for/is a bear” a B, a bear, or something else? In a more abstract form, these are key questions of literary theory, theatre theory and cultural and literary animal studies – what is representation, what is the agency of being, how do life, language, sign and name affect and effect each other? These questions are about representation and naming, about embodiment and the production of meaning on the stage, about signification and agency. They collapse in what I call the “epistemological aesthetics” of animals on the stage. For example, the aesthetics of animal performances on the stage are intertwined with questions relating to the theory of acting and the semiotics of theatre, they problematize the human-animal distinction as well as the distinction between phenomenological presence and representation/sign. Aesthetics take part in epistemology, and epistemological questions are complicated once more by being structured aesthetically. Knowing animals and staging/performing them are not separate ways of dealing with them, but just different aspects.

6This might explain why the precise question about the relation and representational dynamics between the B, the Bear, the animal and the name, was one of the starting points for German-French choreographer and performer Antonia Baehr in thinking about animals on the stage and developing animal performances. The alphabestiary, one of the first ways a child masters language and animals, and its ontogenetical (that is: historical) match, the bestiary, have deeply informed and formed our ways of thinking about animals. They mediate our practices and theories of animals, they prefigure and haunt our seeing, knowing, naming of animals.

7The ABC of Animals provides an excellent example of the three key aspects of (alpha)bestiaries. These are what qualify bestiaries, the object of Baehr’s performances, to serve as methodological tools to understand Baehr’s epistemological aesthetics: at one level, (alpha)bestiaries illustrate cultural practices and knowledge about animals (zoology, zoos, animal shows). In addition, they carry them out (reading, seeing, sorting, naming). And, at a third level, they stage these cultural practices and their inherent logics (translating, transposing, shifting – e.g. by oscillating between representation and presence: “stands for/is”), and therefore they perform their own structure. Split into these three different ways of relating to cultural practices of human-animal relationships, (alpha)bestiaries do not only carry an official agenda, which aims at stabilising these practices. They also often have a performative agenda, which disturbs and contradicts the official one and therefore can be described as self-aware stages of knowledge.

8In this paper, bringing together 1) theory that uses the bestiary as a figuration of theory, 2) results from recent research about the bestiary as a cultural form and 3) the artistic research of Antonia Baehr in two of her performances, I am arguing that bestiaries, if understood as self-aware stages of knowledge, can be strategically re-appropriated and converted into methodological tools. As such, the bestiary may serve as a reminder of the fact that our theoretical dealings with animals are never neutral, but always informed by animal genres and practices: even and especially basic operations of thinking about animals like sorting and naming are doing something to animals. When confronted with the heterogeneous multiplicity of forms of animals on stage, using taxonomy to regain analytical categories and tools could seem like an obvious, even “tempting” (Chaudhuri 2014, 3) solution.

  • 7 According to Wild 2010, 197, all “binary-hierarchical oppositions”/“binär-hierachische Oppositionen (...)

9The most natural distinction seems to be the discrimination between “present” and “represented” animals, and most taxonomies of theatre animals start from here (Chaudhuri 2009, 522). But this simple binary discrimination only doubles its inner structure, as stage animals oscillate between semioticity and materiality (Orozco 2013, 66). And there are even more binaries constituting and structuring the discourse, especially those of animal studies (cf. discursive/constructed vs. real/naturalist concepts of animals) and theatre theory (cf. text vs. performance, theatricality vs. performativity, etc.). If we want to understand how these different binary-hierarchical oppositions7 are related to each other, and subsequently how animal theory and theatre theory are substantially intertwined (historically and systematically), if we want to answer “the question of animals” by questioning their own theories, terms and models – then repeating and thereby strengthening these binary structures is not helpful.

  • 8 In my ongoing PhD project, I propose the heuristic categories of stage-animals, theoretical-animals (...)

10Luckily, contemporary performances are inhabited by a multiplicity of animals that refuse to be sorted, and there are performances that propose alternatives: queering the binary structures and thereby not only changing the categories, but the aesthetic, epistemological and ethical/political functions of the categorisation. Accordingly, a possible heuristic strategy of using the bestiary as a methodological tool could be to add more entries to a speculative and idiosyncratic bestiary of theatre.8 These entries can allow us to make distinctions that queer the binaries of theatre theory and animal theory, by looking at differences that are not material, but functional. These can bring specific functions and activities of animals into the realm of theory that would otherwise have been left unseen. Operating with a number of non-simple animals, this approach aims to change not only the categories, but the functional principles of the categorisation. This approach neither ignores the inevitability of sorting and naming and their politics, nor does it propose categories as “natural” that are in fact effects of the interplay of other, presupposed binary structures. This turns animals from objects of analysis into tools of analysis, not in a sense of instrumentalisation (as “good to think with”) for human self-exploration, but in a way that could be provisionally described as “thinking-with”. To paraphrase and transpose Haraway’s “dance of relating” (Haraway 2008, 25) as a type of becoming-with: thinking about stage- and theatre-animals is a “choreography of thinking-with”.

2. “B is a brown bear, first one in the show”: My Dog is my Piano

11Albeit not always explicitly, the bestiary is a popular figure of thought when thinking about the animals contained in a text or other cultural forms. Of specific interest are attempts to think of the bestiary as more than a sum of these animals: Here the bestiary serves as the figure of thought of this “something more”.

  • 9 The term “menagerie” complicates matters here, as the menagerie has – very much like the bestiary – (...)

12To start with, Gary Genosko defines the bestiary as the assemblage of zoological knowledge, textual and extratextual animals and their formation by an author as “his own menagerie” (Genosko 1993, 604).9 The “psychobestiarist” Freud for example “established a collection of fables about animals out of the menageries of his analysands as well as his own textual, extratextual, and extraanalytic experiences” (Genosko 1993, 603) and lets them “parade” in sessions and case studies. He later amends this concept: the bestiary both describes how the authors in question are doing theory and his own method: following the tracks of the animals put in motion by the author (Genosko 1997, 529). More and more, the number of bestiarists grows (the author, the interpreter, the reader of the interpretation), and more and more, the activity of “doing the bestiary” tends to be ascribed to the “creatures” themselves, effectively rendering bestiaries “machine[s] for theory-making” (Genosko 1997, 530).

  • 10 Latour 2004, 67: “speech prostheses […] allow nonhumans to participate in the discussions of humans (...)

13In this sense, the bestiary is a figuration of theory that acts as a speech prosthesis10, allowing animals to take part in the discussions of humans: Bestiaries are tools that render animals irrefutably relevant to our thinking and conceptualising of them. There is, again, a “something more”, the buzzing of the (collective) activity of animals as figures of thought, that are used by theory, but refuse to be only objects, and instead insist on their agency. “The creatures put to work by philosophers and thinkers, though they ordinarily go unnoticed or ignored, will […] nudge their way back into view, all insisting on their own distinctive, individual contributions to the task at hand.” (Tyler 2012, 8) The bestiary’s animals co-constitute (animal) theory and the bestiary gathers a collective of theoretical-animals. The bestiary is not synonymous with the animals it contains, but it is a figuration of thought that enables “an attentive listening to the animal life of texts” (Williams 2004, 59), a stage which renders their agency visible, enabling the entities that make up the collective. David Williams suggests that “close scrutiny of the bestiaries that inhabit certain art and textual practices can amplify political and ethical narratives, positionalities, propositions, potentialities, and can enable a tentative mapping of implied relations between zoe […] and bios.” (Ibid.) Listening to the staged lives of animals does not reveal an essence. The life of the animals of theatre’s bestiaries is a situated proposition, interacting with propositions of theatre history, performance theory, and animal theory. This allows and calls for tentative, heuristic mapping – but this mapping needs to be aware of its own anthropocentricity (in the end, a bestiarist does sort and name) and historicity. Genosko, Williams and Tyler acknowledge animals as figures of knowledge in a history of knowledge that is coproduced by animals – but not the historical depth of the bestiary, its “troubling stakes”, as Derrida puts it (Derrida 2002, 407). Thrusting aside the literary history of the genre, they also sweep away the history of knowledge of the bestiary as stage, and cultural theory’s role in a history of knowledge about animals.

14To develop a theory of the bestiary that ignores neither the problematic history of the cultural form bestiary nor the capability of the figure of thought, one can follow the traces of Jacques Derrida in L’animal que donc je suis. Derrida, speaking about the animals that are at work in his theory and the animals in his mundane life, uses the word “bestiary” to assemble them only hesitantly: “How to welcome or liberate so many animal-words [animots] chez moi? [] It would have amounted at the same time to something more and less than a bestiary. […] Rather than developing that fabulous bestiary I gave myself a horde of animals within the forest of my own signs and the memoirs of my memory.” (Ibid., 405) Collecting and assembling animals is subjecting them to the human, resulting in a practice of theory which is, rather than an alternative form of discourse on an equal footing, in fact a scene of power: “far from resembling Noah’s ark [...] more like a circus, with an animal trainer having his sad subjects, bent low, file past”. (Ibid., 407) Derrida nonetheless uses the ambiguous term, dissolving various stages of knowledge – bestiary, circus, menagerie, bestiary – he both turns away from the bestiary and towards it, by pointing out its “troubling stakes”: “Instead of recalling the menagerie that some who badmouth me might characterize as my autobibliography, I shall simply recall the idea, or rather the troubling stakes of a philosophical bestiary, of a bestiary at the origin of philosophy.” (Ibid.)

15The bestiary is bound to the anthropologocentrism of Western philosophy. The alternative to this “Ursprung” is the “beginning of thinking” Derrida experiences in the encounter with his cat: “The animal looks at us, and we are naked before it. Thinking perhaps begins here”. (Ibid., 397) Haraway criticised Derrida for not taking up the offer of the cat, as he turned back to his desk to think and write philosophy, ultimately doing nothing different than all Western thinkers before him (Haraway 2008, 21) – not entering a different practice (a becoming-with of companion species), but doing theory. Against this allegation it can be argued that Derrida accepts that he can’t leave theory, language, culture – he is aware of the anthropocentrism and violence of the cultural practices he uses as metaphors, yet he is also aware of the fact that he can’t help using them: they are more than just metaphors; as cultural forms and cultural techniques mediating animal encounters, they can’t be negated. Thinking (with/about) animals is already part of hierarchical and violent practices. For Derrida, there is no outside of cultural forms, no outside of the bestiary. Other practices can only be rehearsed on the stages of theory, by re-enacting cultural practices as figurations of theory. The animot is such a stage: Derrida suggests no longer congregating animals in the generalised singular of “the animal”, which segregates them as the other of man. Nor does he replace l’animal with les animaux, but instead defers it into “animot”. Deferring is the movement of différance, as différer means both “to differ” and “to defer”. This shift emphasizes the inevitable congregating-segregating-naming activity of language on the one hand and the unavoidable active presence of the animals in the philosophical texts, theories and systems on the other. Derrida’s animot does not replace the cultural forms, but shifts them subtly so that they become stages of knowledge of their own doing, showing both their limitations and their utopian potential. In this sense, the animot is its own bestiary, one that is self-aware of its epistemological and ethical impossible possibility. Its stage is the stage of the order of knowledge that is always already deconstructing itself: It is like a picture puzzle, showing two different things at once, flickering under the spectator’s view: both the “Ursprungsszene” of anthropologocentrism and the stage for thinking-with animals, yet to come.

  • 11 The lecture performance refers to the genres of (auto-)biography and field study, nonetheless the s (...)
  • 12 See for a contextualisation of My Dog is my Piano in the history of performance art (with/about) an (...)

16Such a stage is carefully created by a series of productions and shifts in the performance My Dog is my Piano by Antonia Baehr. “A stands for animals all ought to know, B is a brown Bear, the first in the show”: Antonia Baehr and her theatre of bestiaries approach a bestiary of theatre, yet to come. In her sonic lecture performance My Dog is My Piano (2012), Baehr reconstructs the cohabitation of her mother, Bettina von Arnim, and her mother’s dog, Tocki, in their house in southern France, in three parts.11 The solo investigates the relationship, the similarities and differences between mother and dog (and house, and performer-daughter), outlining non-binary but relational modes of same- and otherness like affinities and rhythms. Simultaneously, it explores the narrative and performative production of these relations.12

17Baehr scrutinizes the constellations of human, animal and space by comparing and mixing their prerecorded sounds – a “companion species” becomes audible (part 1). It is then situated and made visible as domestic animal (German: Haustier), by redrawing and “tracing the traces” the dog left in the house, using different kinds of projections and overwriting them (part 2). The palimpsests produced are used as a score for a vocal performance which renders the companion species audible, as performatively constituted by present and absent humans, animals and spaces (part 3). Deeply informed by contemporary animal theory, the lecture performance stages theoretical positions, displaying the performative potential of Derrida’s “scene” and Haraway’s “dance”. Instead of literally quoting or simply illustrating theory, Baehr stages their bestiary, including Derrida’s “animot” and Haraway’s “companion species”. The proposed heuristic differentiation between theoretical- and practical- can be of help here to understand how Baehr is unfolding the complexity of these theoretical figurations, which are not so much a species, but a fully-fledged bestiary: The companion species and the animot even though Derrida and Haraway themselves are staging them at first glance as either/or, are both theoretical- and practical-animals.

  • 13 Baehr’s companion species of the first part is not constituted alone by mother and dog living toget (...)
  • 14 Baehr does not use Latour as an explicit reference, but his concepts of fabrication, collective and (...)

18In the first part, when comparing and manipulating the soundscapes of mother and dog on two DJ-turntables, Baehr produces a companion-species as practical-animal, in relation to the shared lives and actual practices and routines of two beings, but also shows its limitations as theoretical-animal. In the second part, when retracing, overwriting and layering, she makes conceptual space for the animot as theoretical-animal. While the first shift from the companion-species as practical-animal towards the companion-species as theoretical-animal results in a subtle critique of a popular misreading of an argument of Haraway,13 the performative shift of the animot offers an epistemological-aesthetic argument/experience of its own: theatre as a cultural practice for the animot, the animot as practical-animal. Both shifts are linked, and therefore queering effectively the conventional theory vs. practice division that constitutes a field on which Haraway and Derrida seem to be opponents. Consequently, the performance touches the need for a new concept of theory/practice which is in fact already proposed by both Haraway and Derrida as a prerequisite for responding responsibly to the questions of the animal. The link between the shifts is the chain of fabrication14/production, that can be read in both directions and that queers the materiality vs. construction division. Baehr’s performance collective “Make up productions” say of themselves: “The activities and identities of the group of artists we represent are linked, through collaboration, economical or social contracts. Some members might share the same biological body. Yet we treat constructed bodies with the same respect as biological ones, because we presuppose the latter are constructions as well: behind the make up, we find no truth, but true make up.” (Make up productions, n.d.) The “true make up” to be found behind the make up suggests that the “chain of fabrication”/“circulating reference” (Latour) works in both directions: digging deeper does not reach an essence, but an always already reconstructed construction, that is to be accepted as an entity in the collective, having impact. Following Butler, Baehr understands not only gender, but also identity and species, as the work of recurrent self-production, as the “practice of improvisation within a scene of constraint” (Butler 2004, 2). Strategically appropriating rules and dispositifs, Baehr’s preferred aesthetic strategy is to subject her performer’s body to (the cultural form of) scores, for example sheet music or choreographical instructions. She uses them as liberating straitjackets to explore the uncontrollable remains (“regulations control everything, therefore, nothing is predetermined”, Klementz 2010), the theatrical dispositif and its cultural techniques in one go: “We ask ourselves what it is to be human, to be a human on display on a theater stage. We laugh on command. We instruct ourselves to look sad, smile, walk, breathe, grab an object, stand. We use ourselves as guinea pigs for human experimentation. We play with control and being controlled. We make up secrets and tricks. We make up an audience and we look at it.” (Make up productions, n. d.)

19Baehr’s artistic research is not directed towards truth, but the “true make up” – here, the encounter of real dog and real mother, two bodies who are absent on stage, but fabricated and referenced. The “true make up” is inseparable from the way it was produced and the collective that took part in this– not the relation to an external reference (truth/logos) is determining its reality, but it is the production that makes it true.

20In the second part of My Dog is my Piano, Baehr’s main activity is to visualize and display the production of scores. While we hear her mother’s voice speaking about the traces the dogs left in the house, Baehr redraws these lines and scratches on photos. Her lines make visible the choreo-graphy of the dog, its material traces, and by reading them, she translates them into signs. For example, when her mother speaks about the balls that have been “killed” by the dog and put on top of the garden fence like trophies by the humans, Baehr circles the balls on a photograph of this fence, projected with an overhead-projector. Suddenly, the fence and the balls are to be read as the lines of a musical stave, with the balls as notes. Speaking with Latour: retracing the fence and balls provides speech prostheses for the dog and the other actors in this network. Baehr is “giving voice” to the unheard, but by drawing a musical system with lines, she is drawing a cage for the wild signifier. Retracing, reading, understanding are acts of violence, subsuming singularity under general ideas, and foisting references onto perceptions. Speaking with Derrida: this speech for the animal always fails to reach it, and yet has a violent impact on it. And as a trace marks the absent in the present, therefore the unrepresentable in every representation, Baehr is not only anthropomorphizing, but also materialising the absence and inaccessibility of the dog, the continuous presence of a trace.

21By staging animals on stage without placing live bodies on the stage, Baehr shows that the presence and perception of animals is always already translated, transposed, and mediated. The archaeology of the animal, as proposed by this performance, does not take away layers of signification to reach through to an essence, an unmediated presence. On the contrary, it piles on layers and links transpositions, with each trace being a score and each score being a trace. Baehr proposes animals not as constructed, but as always already re-constructed. Yet, this is not proposing them as a blank canvas for human imagination: the translations and constructions we are witnessing (and taking part in) are collective and collaborative – even the animals take part in representing their re-constructedness, by being absent, unpresentable, and by means of their traces that are to be traced.

22In the third part, Baehr executes the produced scores, translating and transposing them once more. In a vocal performance of sounds, she reproduces the voices, body noises and languages of mother and dog, moving slowly between different languages, morphing words to barking and panting and back and elsewhere. Dog, mother and score are materialised together, and they are interdependent. All languages, all voices, all speeches are presented as likewise natural and cultural, found and made. Baehr is not just mimicking a dog – she is reproducing the medial-produced–crossover and blending, her voice is scratching and cutting, performing cultural techniques and making them audible. The knowledge about the production is omnipresent but never limits the aesthetic experience. This final scene, the co-production of re-construction of vocal performance as cultural practice for the animot, is like a performative re-dreaming of Derrida’s dream of an unheard-of music: the questions of the animal ask for a key, he says, not to liberate animals from their cage, “but in a more musical sense, like a key or signature designed to register a set of regulated modulations, sharps and flats. I wish only to indicate a tonality, some high notes that change the whole stave […] I dreamed that I gave myself incompatible commands, hence impossible tasks. How to have heard here a language or unheard-of music […] I was dreaming of inventing an unheard-of grammar and music in order to create a scene that was neither human, nor divine, nor animal…” (Derrida 2008, 63)

23Changing the tonality within the given restricting and always anthropologocentric system, to change the whole stave, by subjecting oneself to incompatible commands/scores, with the aim of creating a scene neither human nor animal: this is the scene of the animot in Baehr’s My Dog is my Piano, of an animot as practical-animal. Baehr transposes it from theoretical animal to practical-animal. The animot is unrepresentable, can’t be illustrated – but in the bestiaries of theatre, it performs. The change of tonality that reaches for a genuinely shared scene is an improvisation within the constraints of language, within music, within theatre – within human practices and culture. This is, according to Derrida, the only possibility anyway. And it has effects: because the unheard-of scene is staged within cultural forms, it allows the animot to leave traces not only on the stage of My Dog is my Piano, but on the stage of knowledge of theatre itself: it queers the taxonomies and becomes the agent of a tentative re-mapping of human and animal, presence and representation, absence and presence, theatre and performance, sign and materiality, truth and make up of the theatre, changing the whole stave. My Dog is my Piano is an invitation to follow these traces into a bestiary of theatre, where theatricality and animality have historically co-evolved and been co-produced, where the questions of theatre and the questions of the animals produce and question each other.

3. To begin with the beginning: Abecedarium Bestiarium

  • 15 In the book that accompanies the performance and documents the scores, Baehr names John Amos Comeni (...)

24While the multiplicity of quoted, represented, vocalized stage-animals in My Dog is My Piano can be described as the internal bestiary of the animot, Baehr’s Abecedarium Bestiarium (2013) makes use of the self-reflective performativity of the (alpha-)bestiary15 as a cultural form that stages its own structure. Again, Baehr is completely aware of the anthropologocentrism and culturalism inherent to the form she appropriates. By overplaying and exaggerating – her bestiary is exclusively inhabited by extinct animals, which are only available through human memory, cultural artefacts and imagination, her bestiary consists of animals chosen by her friends to represent their relationship – she is once more reaching out to the animals not by turning away from culture and signification, but by diving into them. Exploring and subverting the epistemology, aesthetics and politics of the bestiary, Baehr is able to take into account the cultural techniques of the bestiary (sorting and naming animals) in relation to the cultural techniques of theatre (staging, embodying, visualising and thinking animals). This means: she is performatively re-staging the history of knowledge of the animal and the history of knowledge of theatre, starting from one of their crossroads, namely – the bestiary.

25Thinking with bestiaries does not mean that one has to name and sort without awareness, the stakes of the bestiary are troubling and troubled enough to subvert them. Instead, it is necessary to first accept that “doing the bestiary” is not neutral. As a pre-modern form, the bestiary seems to provide an easy way to sneak back to a pre-taxonomic, pre-rational human-animal relationship and not be affected by the taxonomy mediating our animal theory anymore. Therefore, using the term to avoid the connotation of taxonomy means to completely rob it of its historical specificity, to ignore its epistemology and to idealize pre-modern ways of thinking with animals: in the discourse of cultural animal studies, doing taxonomy is viewed with suspicion, but writing a bestiary provides the safety of irony, at the price of ignoring that the bestiary has a history, is a cultural form, stages cultural techniques and is no less a stage of knowledge than later taxonomies.

26Until recently, medieval bestiaries were widely considered to be the genre of anachronistic proto-knowledge, obscure fact-fiction hybrids, only making sense in salvation-allegorical readings: flawed attempts at natural science, a collection of spiritual exempla without serious interest in “real animals” and their practices. But as Susan Crane has shown, bestiaries not only contain knowledge (e.g. about hunting), but are a pattern of knowledge. Crane understands that bestiaries are classificatory projects aimed to reveal the unity of creation by placing the creatures in relation to each other. The bestiary’s taxonomy binds together the dichotomies of semioticity (meaning) and materiality (physiological description) of animals. It is mediated by multifold similarities and differences, and meaning is created by relationships and affinities. Following Crane, the bestiary is a cultural form of knowledge that renders the complex ontology of animals possible, staging them as “by turns physical and figural […] enmeshed in narratives and good to eat”. (Crane 2013, 77) It provides alternative concepts of signification and of the division between physis and meaning, and it is inherently theatrical, as its taxonomy is not textual, but spatial and temporal: “If the bestiary’s taxonomy could be pictured, its representation would require at least three dimensions, not the two dimensions needed for the neatly branching diagrams of later animal taxonomies.” (Ibid., 77-78)

  • 16 Originally, Crane is – exemplarily – speaking about a specific animal of a specific bestiary, a sta (...)

27In Abecedarium Bestiarium, Baehr performs scores written for her by her friends, portraits of affinities in animal metaphors. Each performance takes place in a different spot on the stage, which is shared with the audience. While Tocki in My Dog is my Piano was proposed as real, but absent, the animals in Abecedarium Bestiarium are overdetermined by their cultural presence: they are metaphors, pictures, narrations, songs, cultural imaginations and phantasmas (and in a typical twist, they nonetheless have sweaty bodies and sexual lives). These overdetermined animals have a “mixed ontological status”, as diagnosed for the bestiary’s animals by Crane: “It is virtually impossible to apprehend the creature per se, prior to any of its assigned meanings. The inseparability of the creature and meaning does not trouble the bestiary […] Lore, wonder, medicine, and metaphor constitute the [animal of the bestiary] as substantially as his own body.” (Ibid., 89-90)16

28One of Crane’s subtitles, “the [animal’s] name is a key to his nature” (Crane 2013, 90) could serve as an epigraph for Baehr’s performance, which starts with a B: “To begin with the beginning. My name is Antonia Baehr, which means bear in German, and I was born in Berlin, which is pronounced bear-lin. The symbol of the city of Berlin is the bear. Many people say I look a bit like a bear. And my parental relatives are also like bears.” (Baehr 2014, 7) Asking herself what it means to share her name with an animal, she asked friends to write scores for her bestiary. Baehr now usually performs eight out of the fourteen soli, D for Dodo, Y for the Yangtze River Dolphin, T for the Tasmanian Tiger, C for the Cuebra Island Amazon of Puerto Rico, S for Steller’s Sea Cow, M for Martelli’s Cat, F for the Forest Tarpan and N for the Northern Bubal Hartebeast. The soli are heterogeneous in their aesthetic, and Baehr completely accepts each piece’s rules, disappears behind the scores for the dance of the Dodo, the overhead-projector based live movie of the forest tarpan, the concert of the sexy River Dolphin, the live loop soundscape of Steller’s Sea Cow, or the full body costume of the queer Tasmanian Tiger.

29The animals that appear are not identities, but collectives of Baehr, her friends, the encyclopedia of extinct animals, machines and media. The differentiations between genders and species are substituted by affinities, similarities, gradual differences; the dichotomy of metaphor vs. material is suspended. Baehr presents the bestiary as radically anthropocentric: this is her bestiary, and the presentation insists that it is about her friends rather than about animals, all structured by human questions and human perspectives. But Baehr is staging the structure of the bestiary and appropriates its anthropologocentrism, as the example of naming shows. In the medieval bestiaries, taxonomy was set in motion and built around the scene of Adam naming the animals according to their inner nature, equiprimordially marking the “founding scene for the theory of natural language” (Crane 2013, 90) and the founding scene of the bestiary: “Locating the origin of figurative thought in Adam’s naming provides the bestiary’s method with its own myth of origin.” (Ibid., 99) Re-enacting the bestiary is not only re-enacting premodern ontologies and taxonomies, but re-enacting the birth of logocentrism, anthropocentrism and shame before the animal’s gaze. Baehr never belittles this taxonomic power structure of name and gaze, but turns it into a play structure: In the Abecedarium Bestiarium, naming is multidirectional, never finite, and always personal. Baehr has multiple names given to her by her friends, depending on their relationship and story, she is Antonia, Toni, Töni, Werner, Baehr, Hirsch. She says: “To my mind, identity is related precisely to who sees me, the friends, the animals who look at me. And in this regard, the name and the act of naming are also important. A naming done by friends, but also the role of the given name and the many self-given names.” (Baehr 2014, 126). Following this, the (self)naming becomes important when being seen by animals; and the naming is never definite, never levels the difference between name and life, fuels the play “B stands for Bear”.

30By embracing the logic and the troubling stakes of the bestiary as cultural form, Baehr dreams, like Derrida, a dream about the bestiary as theoretical figuration. Her dream shares with Derrida’s its perspective and its “point of speech”, the mode of desire and imagination, and the locus of a scene neither human nor animal, a different stage: “J’imagine l’ABC des affinités devenir un portrait réalisé sur scène d’une communauté queer évoquée en tant qu’animaux disparus. […] J’imagine l’après-vie et des fantômes d’animaux disparus réémergents en tant qu’utopies de corps, personnalités et formes de vie queer. J’imagine un tourbillon d’affinités au-delà du naturalisme” (Baehr 2012, 4).

31In Abecedarium Bestiarium, Baehr uses the anthropologocentric “Urszene” of the human-animal relationship and of language, which is at the core of the bestiary, to overdetermine it – she stages the “troubling stakes” of the bestiary and the questions of the animal as an unheard-of “Urszene” of a theatre of the bestiary.

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Baehr, Antonia and Friends: Abecedarium Bestiarium. Portraits of affinities in animal metaphors. Nyon 2014.

Baehr, Antonia: “Beginning with the Abecedarium Bestiarium” In: Feuille de Salle for Antonia Baehr. Les Subsistances, November 2012.

Butler, Judith: Undoing Gender. New York 2004.

Calarco, Matthew: Zoographies. The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida. New York 2008.

Chaudhuri, Una: “Animal Acts for Changing Times, 2.0: A Field Guide to Interspecies Performance”. In: Una Chaudhuri and Holly Hughes (Eds.): Animal Acts: Performing Species Today. Ann Arbor 2014. 1-12.

Chaudhuri, Una: “‘Of all nonsensical things’: Performance and Animal Life”. In: PMLA 124 (2009), 2, 520-525.

Crane, Susan: Animal Encounters: contacts and concepts in medieval Britain. Philadelphia 2013.

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Genosko, Gary: A Bestiary of Territoriality and Expression: Poster Fish, Bower Birds, and Spiny Lobsters“. In: Canadian Review of Comparative Literature 24 (1997), 3, 529-542.

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1 For the concept of “scenes of knowledge”/“stages of knowledge” as a description for the interplay of science, arts and media, especially for the theatricality of science and experiments see Schramm et Al. 2003; Schramm et Al. 2005. The background of this paper is a PhD project about “Animals on Stages of Knowledge” that, by using the concept of “stages of knowledge”, aims to understand how the concept of theatricality and the concept of the animal have been co-produced in a shared history of knowledge of theatre and science, a history of knowledge which has always been (co-)produced by the complex figure of the animal.

2 The concept of “Kulturtechniken”/“cultural techniques” is used to describe “basic operations and differentiations that give rise to an array of conceptual and ontological entities which are said to constitute culture” (Winthrop-Young 2013, 3). This issue of Culture & Society also offers English translations of some of the canonical texts of the German research on Kulturtechniken.

3 “Matrix” here refers to Kirby 1972, and describes the ability of the theatre system to frame presences and actions on a stage and therefore render them as acting (or more general: as theatrical) in the perception of the audience.

4 “Fabrication” means, according to Latour’s Actor-Network-Theory, the simultaneous production of knowledge and actors who are taking an active part in this production. See Latour 1999, 113.

5 Circulating reference means the chain of transformation in the process of fabrication. The term substitutes the (according to Latour, wrong) opposition between world and word, materiality and semioticity, nature and language, not with a bridge, but with a concept of an endless chain of transformations, translations, that constitute and stabilise both the knowledge and the actors in this network. See Latour, 1999, 24.

6 Calarco 2008 coined the term “question of the animal”. The term is pluralised here 1) to acknowledge the plurality and heterogeneity both of the animals and of the questions raised by them – ascribing a single question to the multiplicity is homogenizing; 2) to stress that these questions are not essential to the animals but also historical and situated.

7 According to Wild 2010, 197, all “binary-hierarchical oppositions”/“binär-hierachische Oppositionen” (BHO) are effectively contained in the main BHO of human/animal.

8 In my ongoing PhD project, I propose the heuristic categories of stage-animals, theoretical-animals, practical-animals, passage-animals, and theatre-animals. Stage-animals are all animals on stages of knowledge, regardless of their state in terms of “real” vs. “represented”. Within these, I differentiate between theoretical-animals and practical-animals. Theoretical-animals are animals that perform a role in a specific theoretical concept, and practical-animals perform (in relation to) cultural practices and materialize them. The difference between theoretical and practical animals is not based on their material status (present or represented, body or idea), but on their function in the epistemological-aesthetic system. Nonetheless, the distinction is heuristic, and is dissolved again in the passage-animal, which is an animal that transfers and transposes concepts, practices, materialities, metaphors; thereby constituting models of transfer and transferability of knowledge. The specific stage-animal that (co-)constitutes the knowledge of theatre and the main interest of the project is called theatre-animal.

9 The term “menagerie” complicates matters here, as the menagerie has – very much like the bestiary – its own history as cultural form, as cultural technique and as figuration of theory, as it is not only a phenomenon, but an epistemic and political device with its own performativity.

10 Latour 2004, 67: “speech prostheses […] allow nonhumans to participate in the discussions of humans, when humans become perplexed about the participation of new entities in collective life. [… Nonhumans] become, […] by means of instruments, relevant to what we say about them.”

11 The lecture performance refers to the genres of (auto-)biography and field study, nonetheless the stage is always already putting quotation marks around the authentic.

12 See for a contextualisation of My Dog is my Piano in the history of performance art (with/about) animals Köhring 2014.

13 Baehr’s companion species of the first part is not constituted alone by mother and dog living together, but is made visible by the means of theatre, by manipulating on the turntables and explaining/pre-scribing what you will hear. The performance therefore stresses Haraway’s often neglected notion that companion-species are semiotic-material nodes, not “the animal”. They are not separable from their media, narration and metaphors; they are constructed and produced, and in this sense, they are always textual, a figure of thought.

14 Baehr does not use Latour as an explicit reference, but his concepts of fabrication, collective and some of his rhetorical strategies can be helpful to contextualize these poetological statements.

15 In the book that accompanies the performance and documents the scores, Baehr names John Amos Comenius’ Orbis Sensualium Pictus (1658) as prototype for her work. See Baehr 2014, 9. Baehr’s communicated interest lays primarily in the alphabestiary, a genre established by Comenius, which was especially popular in the late 19th century. She is less interested in the bestiary as literary genre of the medieval ages. Nonetheless, it is argued here that her performance is also using the bestiary as cultural form and as figuration of thought. The slight tendency of this paper to mix both genres is simply taking Baehr’s thesis about their inner affinity seriously for analysing her work on both.

16 Originally, Crane is – exemplarily – speaking about a specific animal of a specific bestiary, a stag.

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Référence électronique

Esther Köhring, « Antonia Baehr’s My Dog is my Piano and Abecedarium Bestiarium: Theatre of the Bestiary, Bestiaries of Theatre », Sillages critiques [En ligne], 20 | 2016, mis en ligne le 23 juillet 2016, consulté le 22 février 2018. URL :

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Esther Köhring

Esther Köhring graduated from the Institute of Applied Theatre Studies, Gießen, Germany, and is an assistant researcher at the Institute for German Philology at Würzburg University, Germany. Her research focuses on animals on stages, in literature and theory. She is one of the editors of Texte zur Tiertheorie, 2015, (an annotated reader in animal theory) and co-founder of the Young Researchers Network Cultural and Literary Animal Studies (Nachwuchsforschernetzwerk CLAS).

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